CHICAGO (AP) — The Rev. Robin Hood stands in front of an elementary school in what's known as "The Holy City" — the Chicago neighborhood where the notorious Vice Lords street gang got its start decades ago and still one of the city's most dangerous areas. Half a block away, a group of men hang out in front of a store where they sell dope.
"Someone was shot right there last week," the anti-violence activist says, motioning to a corner across the street, in front of a restaurant where bars cover the windows.
While he talks, kids spill out of the school at the end of another day. Most head off on foot in small groups — older students with younger ones — walking home past boarded-up buildings and vacant lots strewn with trash.
As Chicago prepares to close 54 schools in an attempt to rescue an academically and financially failing educational system, one of its greatest challenges will be safely maneuvering thousands of students to and from class through the patchwork of rival gang territories that cover large parts of the nation's third-largest city.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his schools chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, have acknowledged the danger of mixing young people from different neighborhoods. Byrd-Bennett agreed in January not to close any high schools. And the district consulted maps of gang lines when choosing where to send elementary students whose schools were closing.
The fear is that younger students may get caught in the crossfire of gang conflicts or be victimized in other ways. Officials know it's not unheard of for kids as young as 10 years old to be involved in gangs.
The district has dedicated about $16.1 million to expand a program known as Safe Passage aimed at assuring that children arrive safely at their new places of study. The program stations adults to stand watch along key routes and alert police of any problems.
But some parents, teachers and community members fear it may not be enough. They insist the concerns that kept high schools off the closing list also exist for students in kindergarten to eighth grade — 30,000 youngsters who will be affected by the closings announced last month.
People such as Eular Hatchett, whose nephew attends another school in the area that's slated to be closed, say they're considering keeping their children at home.
"I don't want them going through that," Hatchett said. "It's not just mine. I'm worried for all the kids."
Hanging over the conversation is the memory of the 2009 beating death of Derrion Albert, an honor student at Chicago's Fenger High School who was repeatedly kicked and hit with a wooden plank while a mob of his classmates gathered around. The attack — the result of tensions among students from different neighborhoods thrown together in the same school — was caught on grainy cellphone video broadcast around the world.
The district expanded an early, less formal version of its Safe Passage program after Albert's death, adopting a model similar to initiatives in New York and Los Angeles.
Jadine Chou, the district's chief safety and security officer, says the program is working. In the past two years, criminal activity has dropped 20 percent in the immediate area of the 35 high schools and four elementary schools that currently have Safe Passage, and attendance has increased because students feel safer walking to school.
Byrd-Bennett has pledged that the program will expand next year to all 55 "welcoming" schools — those buildings that will receive students from schools that are being closed.
"I will not waver in my commitment to ensure our students have the high-quality education that allows them to succeed regardless of where they live, and we will never improve education at the expense of student safety," Byrd-Bennett said when the plans were announced in late March.
The schools chief has said the district will also invest in additional cameras, metal detectors, alarm systems and other security measures inside the welcoming schools. Each school will also have an individualized safety plan.
Emanuel asked the police department to enact an operational plan for the closings similar to what it did for the city's hosting of a large NATO summit last year. Deputy Chief Steve Georgas, who led the department's operations during the summit and developed Chicago's school-safety plans in response to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, is overseeing the expanded Safe Passage program, along with district officials.
Their success will rely heavily on people like Rev. Hood, who grew up in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood — a.k.a. "The Holy City." He's lost two siblings and uncle and two cousins to gun violence over the past 20 years.
In addition to preaching, Hood works with organizations such as Mothers Opposed to Violence Everywhere and another group called CeaseFire to ensure that students and staff get to and from North Lawndale's schools safely and to help reduce truancy.
The seven-day-a-week job involves working with former gang members — experts in gang behavior he calls his "street epidemiologists" — to gather intelligence about where problems may be brewing and to try to negotiate resolutions. He and Derek Brown, a former Vice Lords chief, also run an after-school boxing program to give young kids an option to being on the streets and getting in trouble.
Gangs have changed since the days when the Vice Lords started running the streets, Hood says.
Back then, rival gangs had organized and hierarchical power structures and large swaths of territory. Today, the groups are smaller and often blend with one another. They move from block to block or one side of the street to another, making it more difficult to predict where violence might break out on a given day.
The areas that see the most criminal activity — those that police and the community call "hot" — can change from day to day. That's what brought Hood and Brown on a recent afternoon to the street corner in front of Dvorak Technology Academy.
"This street here is very, very hot," Hood says.
As aware as he is of the dangers, he believes the Safe Passage program will work. He says they successfully got the guys selling dope in front of the store to move farther away from the school than they used to be, and there's an agreement in the neighborhood that there won't be any shooting during school hours, including when kids are coming and going.
What it will take, Hood says, is money and the commitment of parents and other community members.
"It's not one shoe fits all. Every area is going to have to be tweaked ... to the relationships and the boundary," he says. "We should be saying 'Don't panic. You're going to lose sleep, but don't panic. Because you're going to be part of the solution.'"